It’s like travelling back 700 years: healthy pleasures in rural Andalucía

It’s like travelling back 700 years: healthy pleasures in rural Andalucía

On our first morning in Atalbéitar, I walk into the kitchen to make coffee and wonder if I’m feeling the effects of the previous night’s festivities. Then I remember it’s not me; it’s the kitchen floor, which is on a gentle slope. I have to be careful carrying the coffee back to bed as the steps are at different heights, and the doorways are small enough to bump your head on. As I lie there, beneath a ceiling constructed of woven chestnut branches and stone slabs, I survey my surroundings, and come to the pleasing conclusion that there’s not a single right angle in sight.

We are staying in a Moorish house in this Andalucían village, and I may as well have travelled back the 700 years to when it was first built. I’ve been visiting Spain for years, as my husband leads wilderness tours here and we’ve travelled from one end to the other, seeking out hidden corners and mountain trails. But arriving in Atalbéitar at night, negotiating its tangle of passageways, ducking under ancient covered walkways while spring water rushes past our feet, we both agree, we’ve never been anywhere quite like this. The village gives the impression of having grown out of the land, rather than been imposed upon it. Its streets are too narrow for cars, the village cats roam freely, and the only sound is the occasional bleating of goats across the slopes. As I look out over the valley on this crisp winter’s morning, the sun is blazing in a solid blue sky and early almond blossom adds splashes of pastel pink to the rocky hills. Everything is still and silent.

A typical Moorish village house in La Tahá. Photograph: Lois Pryce

Atalbéitar is part of La Tahá, a group of seven villages in the Alpajurras region of Andalucía. It’s a tiny speck on the map of Spain, on a southern slope of the Sierra Nevada overlooking the deep gorge of the Trevelez River. Settled by the Nasrid dynasty of Granada, the people who built its Alhambra, the whitewashed villages of Pitres, Atalbéitar, Capilerilla, Mecina, Mecinilla, Fondales and Ferreirola have retained their Moorish feel thanks to their unique architecture and remote location. Access into the valley is by a winding mountain road that passes through Pitres, the main town, but all the other villages are reached by spurs off this road, so there is no passing trade.

In Atalbéitar, this is no cause for concern. There is no trade to be had. It has a population of 31, and no shop or restaurant, although there is an improvised social club/bar, run by village stalwart Jesus, who opens up his home on the main square when the mood takes him. That’s not to say there isn’t a lively social scene. La Tahá boasts a busy calendar of festivals, many of them relating to Easter and various Saint’s days, but some are specific to the region, such as an autumn chestnut festival called Mauraca, and the summer Santa Cruz fiesta, which includes a traditional “burial of the fox”, with a fancy dress parade culminating in a bonfire cremation of a mock fox stuffed with fireworks.

Our arrival, in mid-January, coincides with the first festival of the year, Chisco de San Antón, when each of the La Tahá villages celebrates with a bonfire in the central plaza and a feast of barbecued pork and local sweet wine. The definitive reason for the festivities seems to have been lost in the mists of time – it’s all about the party. The most striking aspect for us – arriving fresh from cash-strapped England with its bankrupt councils – is that all the meat and bread and booze is provided by the local authority.

Soon, the flames are rising high, a jam-band of local musicians has set up by the fire and the scent of roasting meat fills the air. The crowd is small and friendly, a mix of ages and nationalities, which according to our hosts, Scottish-Spanish couple, Tom and Carmen, is typical of La Tahá. The area is a quiet success story that contradicts rural Spain’s usual lament of empty villages and dying populations. Over the years, the seven villages have attracted an international crowd of artists, musicians and writers. The nearest major town, Orgiva, is famous for its longstanding hippy commune and bohemian reputation, and La Tahá, 45 minutes’ drive away, with its rambling old houses and fertile land, is a perfect location to seek out la buena vida.

The festival of San Antón is celebrated with a bonfire in the central plaza and a feast of barbecued pork and local sweet wine. Photograph: Lois Pryce

We’re invited into the jam session, and a truly outre mix of banjo, harmonica, guitar, drums and penny whistle are soon bashing out a 12-bar blues with improvised Romanian lyrics. We use a jar of lentils from our rental property as a percussion instrument. The meat and wine seem limitless but in true British form, we peak early and leave the locals to their late-night carousing.

In the morning, steadying my sea legs on the kitchen floor, I remind myself of our holiday intentions: two weeks of healthy living after the excesses of the festive season, starting with a heart-pumping walk each day. The villages of La Tahá are connected by a network of trails, and over the course of our stay we vow to visit each village on foot. Our first trek takes us along the river gorge to Pitres: it’s a dramatic, rugged hike punctuated by gasps of both amazement and a shameful lack of fitness.

The slopes of the Trevelez valley are insanely steep, winding through enchanted forests of pine and oak, with orchards of orange and lemon trees in the villages, and wild figs and pomegranates at every turn. The valley’s geology is striated with mica and the landscape shimmers silver in the sunlight. Walking this lush, verdant land, we find it hard to believe that much of Spain is in the midst of a crippling drought. Streams pour down the mountainside and natural springs bubble from the rock. In the depth of the forest we come to the most famous spring, Fuente la Gaseosa, where a high concentrate of iron carbonates in the rock has created a natural supply of agua con gas, fizzing straight out of the ground.

View from La Mezquita, River Trevelez valley to Ferreirola and Busquistar at sunset.
Photograph: Jan Traylen/Alamy

We start our walks with the most challenging uphill climbs but eventually make it down to the bottom of the valley, drawn to the roar of the Trevelez long before we can see it. Our efforts are rewarded with a final scramble through the undergrowth to an icy dip in a natural pool beneath a Roman bridge.

The clean light, abundant water and fresh mountain air do wonders for everything that ails you. It’s hard to believe, in our ultra-connected western European lives, that such magical, unchanged places can still be found. The villages themselves are beautiful in their simplicity, with just a couple of humble, old-school hotels, and cafes serving good coffee and not much else. There’s a weekly market in Pitres, and vans selling bread and fish do the rounds of the villages.

La Tahá provides a truly natural detox, with a refreshing lack of wellbeing waffle. There are no expensive retreats, or burned-out execs turned wellness gurus exhorting you to live your best life. Just a horde of territorial cats, an old man in his pyjamas grunting “Buenas” from his balcony every morning, and all the bounty of mother earth – everything you need for the good life.

Details of the walking trails between the villages, 7 Towns, 7 Routes, can be found here. The writer stayed at albaholidaylets.com

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